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Probe Focuses on Slain Prosecutor's Relationship With a Drug Abuser

Murder: Intervention by Stephen Tauzer in the young man's court case, allowing him to live at his residence, and other actions lead authorities to refocus investigation.

September 21, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adding to the mystery surrounding the death of Kern County's No. 2 prosecutor, high-ranking legal authorities said Friday they were perplexed and troubled by the relationship between the veteran prosecutor and a young drug abuser.

According to Deputy Atty. Gen. Leah Ann Alcazar, Assistant Dist. Atty. Stephen M. Tauzer inserted himself into the drug case against Lance Hillis and refused to withdraw even after the case was turned over to the attorney general's office. The state prosecutor said Tauzer even helped the younger man violate probation by taking him out of the county without first obtaining permission from the probation department.

The relationship between the avuncular, white-haired Tauzer, 57, and Hillis, 22, has not only raised issues of favoritism and cronyism in Kern County's tightly knit law enforcement community, it has become a focus of the investigation into the prosecutor's murder.

Tauzer was found in a pool of blood in his garage last Sunday. The coroner's office has released scant details, saying only that Tauzer was stabbed at least once in the head and suffered other head trauma.

Initially, speculation about who might have a motive in this oil patch town centered on the cases Tauzer had tried over his 30-year career, including high-profile murders and political corruption cases in surrounding communities.

But Tauzer's relationship with the deeply troubled Hillis, who himself was killed in a traffic accident last month, has come under increasing scrutiny.

Hillis had drifted from an all-American childhood as the son and grandson of Bakersfield law enforcement officers into drugs and crime. He was taken in by Tauzer, who allowed the young man to live in his northwest Bakersfield home, providing him money and a car to drive.

Tauzer told court officials he'd known the boy since he was 5, and was determined to help him kick his drug habit.

This brought him into conflict with Hillis' father, Chris, a former district attorney's investigator who believed in a tough-love approach. Chris Hillis felt Lance needed to hit bottom to get better; and hitting bottom meant going to jail.

The elder Hillis and the prosecutor had once been friends, but came to blows in the months before Tauzer's death over Tauzer's continuing interference.

Chris Hillis denies having anything to do with the murder, saying in an interview he turned all his anger toward Tauzer "over to God."

But investigators have reportedly continued to look at Tauzer's involvement with the younger Hillis. They flew to Northern California this week to question the operators of a drug treatment center in Placerville, where Lance Hillis had been a resident.

One source close to the investigation said detectives are considering the possibility that the younger Hillis might have bragged about his relationship with the powerful and financially well-off Tauzer. They wonder whether someone who heard such stories could have been motivated to attack the prosecutor. A spokesman for the center, Progress House, declined to comment Friday.

Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, a friend of Tauzer's for 27 years, has said his colleague's relationship with Hillis was open and above board. But Alcazar, the state prosecutor who took the young man's case, said Friday that she was bothered by it. "I'm on record saying [Tauzer's] involvement was inappropriate," she said.

According to Alcazar, Hillis had flunked out of so many treatment programs that she was in agreement with Hillis' family that he would benefit from jail time on a recent arrest for methamphetamine possession.

The county probation department also urged jail time. Yet, according to Alcazar, Tauzer wrote letters and appeared in court on behalf of Hillis.

Alcazar also said Superior Court Judge Lee Felice, who handled the case, directed questions to Tauzer instead of her, even though she was prosecuting the case.

Although Hillis was out of treatment options under state law that governs drug offenders, Judge Felice gave him another opportunity, Alcazar said. Efforts to reach Felice on Friday were unsuccessful.

As to the charge that Tauzer helped Hillis violate probation by taking him out of the county, Chief Probation Officer Larry Rhoades called it "a technical violation."

"Any violation of probation is serious," he said. "But once we verified [Hillis] was being placed in a licensed program, we saw nothing to be gained" by adding new charges for the probation violation.

Even though he took no action against Tauzer or Hillis, Rhoades said people in his department were bothered by Tauzer's actions.

"This department did have concerns about Mr. Tauzer's involvement in the case," Rhoades said.

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